Robert McKechnie, the author of the following account, was the Head of Guidance at Broad Oak School in Weston-super-Mare from 1971 to 1986. Although he had undergone the standard Edinburgh University course in Philosophy under John Macmurray in the early 1950’s he did not consciously follow Macmurray’s thinking in his work in schools. Now, in reflecting back on his experience, he realises the influence of Macmurray in what he achieved with his pupils.
The pupils involved were aged between 13 and 17. They each followed the course described for 2 years of their secondary schooling. The program was ended due to the effects of changing educational policies nationwide including the introduction of the National Curriculum.
“All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship.” John Macmurray
To help young people cope with life, we ran a programme of group discussions (1971-1986), in a 2000 pupil comprehensive school. The pupils shared their feelings and values with each other about a whole range of issues such as parenting, drugs, relationships, racism — all introduced by their own teacher/facilitator, who had been taught to keep his mouth shut and ‘hold the ring’. The groups numbered sixteen only, made up of both boys and girls and a mixture of high and low achievers as well as social groups. In this way, the pupils taught and healed each other.
For the first time in their lives, the pupils had regular weekly opportunities to face up to themselves and each other, to recognise the hurt they could do — or the good. As time went by, the sharing produced trust, far greater self-knowledge, self-esteem and respect for others. They learned what was important to them, what was truly worthwhile and they developed hitherto unknown strengths. This enabled them to exercise self-control when corrupting and potentially damaging influences came their way in school or elsewhere, and thus gave them a better chance of keeping out of harm’s way and achieving worthwhile goals.
This “Feelings Education” mirrored exactly what Macmurray taught. The (as yet) innocent minds of our pupils were gaining meaningful knowledge, fulfilling what Macmurray said about the first priority in education, that is, “Learning to be human and live in relation to others”. Further, the discussions led to meaningful action in that the pupils’ attitudes and behaviour developed dramatically, resulting in a more co-operative school and happier families. (Incidentally, the pupils insisted that the teachers acted in bringing about the adoption of this work in all schools. If that isn’t meaningful action brought about by meaningful knowledge, I don’t know what is!) Thirdly, the blessings of sound friendship developed. Pupils began to care, to look after each other. A Macmurrian ‘living in community’ was emerging to such an extent that more of Macmurray’s teaching was exemplified. I remember him saying that “Jesus was the first true communist”. Our pupils were fast learning to follow in His footsteps — without knowing it — since the vast majority know little of spiritual matters. All this was because the pupils were given the opportunity to develop this way for the first time in education.
The difference between success and failure in this work in schools is marked. For instance, current Personal, Social, Moral and Health Education (PSE) is conducted along the lines of ordinary lessons. The teachers are not trained to listen, the groups number twenty-five or more, the teacher controls the agenda (limiting pupil participation), notes are often taken (again limiting discussion), discipline is enforced by the teacher, instead of the pupils being allowed to correct their own classmates, there is often segregation by streaming or by sex. The worst practices involve restricting the amount of time given to this work, e.g. three or four terms only or to the less academic, and then the work is always marginalised in favour of exam subjects. Unless this work is given priority over everything else, the pupils won’t bother.
Success with this work is assured if the pupils are given the ‘freedom to be’ (Eric Fromm). Thus, the teacher is trained in basic listening skills; the groups are kept to a maximum of sixteen; the groups are fully comprehensive; they sit in circles, following on from ‘circle time’ as in primary school; the pupils do the talking, teaching and healing; the teacher’s job is to provide correct information and hold the ring; the agenda of each topic is owned by the children, as in the best of therapy — so there is no ‘hurrying on’ because the curriculum says so. Above all, the pupils must be allowed to believe that this work is superior to anything else. Indeed, without realising this, because we got the set-up right in the first place, the work assumed an importance in the eyes of the pupils far beyond anything we could imagine. They began to depend upon these lessons as food for starving minds — and the discussions didn’t disappoint them.
The pupils said there should be far more of these lessons and charged me to see that all schools adopted this work. One twenty-five-year-old ex-pupil said that until there were these discussions, there was no knowledge; conversation was just plain junk; boys knew nothing of feminine problems and pain until these issues were raised in groups with girls present. Two years after leaving school a girl told me that the group discussions were the only thing that had stopped her from committing suicide because her step-father had sexually abused her.
When questioned, teachers agree wholeheartedly with this approach, but cannot see how to make a break-through, given the age-old traditions of education, i.e. only learning given over to qualifications must take priority. This system is blindly supported by parents in all countries — the exceptions merely a whisper in the wind against the majority. There is no public debate about personal development being the key to academic excellence, let alone compassionate, moral excellence. We have allowed education over the generations to equip people with the ability to fire on two cylinders for the rest of their natural lives, instead of the six cylinders that the good Lord intended. So generations of young people will continue to face educational drudgery. Further, the wisdom required by our future adults will remain still-born.
John Macmurray has shown us clearly what our education priorities are. When I sat at his feet in Edinburgh in 1950, schools were a million miles away from being able to carry out his philosophy for mankind. But not any more. We have the capability in schools, right now, to capitalise on the teachings of this great philosopher. Further, we have a huge incentive. According to the Prime Minister, we face two terrible disasters, racial and environmental. So I suggest it is now time for education to produce populations of young people who have the compassionate wisdom to tackle these dangers effectively. “For it is no use trying to solve problems with the same sort of thinking that caused them” (Einstein). It has taken John Macmurray to show us the way. He has laid down, clearly, the way to feel, then think. This is the beginning of wisdom. As a devout Christian, he couldn’t do anything else. However, it takes special people to be able to achieve that wisdom and then use it — our children — so we must give them every opportunity to fire on all six cylinders involving compassion and intellectual excellence.
If schools embraced this change wholeheartedly, without fudging, ten million school pupils would be equipped to influence our communities for the better by ‘friendship’. I see every reason for this example to spread.